news & reviews

27May

Old Thoughts Of DeLillo’s “Underworld”

Last post I take from my old blog, I promise. Just that there’s more people reading this one, so hey, I want certain things to be noticed. Like this one, of what I suspect is my favourite book. Or one of them.

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So this weekend I finished reading Underworld by Don DeLillo. A monster of a book. Eight hundred plus pages. There’s nothing I can really say that every major world newspaper or author has said already, I suppose. (This is the third DeLillo novel I’ve read in a row after Americana and White Noise.)

But I’ve never been struck by just how powerful writing can be, style-wise. Sure, the themes are pretty major. Death. Contemporary life. The history of modern America. Paranoia. The government. It ain’t just that. It’s the way he’s telling it. The effortless descriptions, the jazz-cool sentences, the way he makes the reader inherit the characters’ thoughts, not merely observe them and their actions from afar.

Floating zones of desire. It was the what, the dismantling of desire into a thousand subspecialities, into spin-offs and narrowings, edge-wise whispers of self… If you were open to suggestion you could float through the zone, finding out who you were by your attachments, slice by slice, tasting the deli specials of the street. You were defined by your fixation.

He captures the heart of a landscape so effortlessly. There’s a way to bring landscape alive in the way it interacts with people, and vice versa, because that’s how a place is. You don’t always see that done well in fiction.

Anyway, so what I’m rambling about is, wow, this guy is probably the best writer I’m likely to come across. And that makes me a little sad, but I’m always open-minded that there’ll be other great stuff. It’s not often you’re struck by someone’s prose.

20May

Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem

Taken from my old blog…

This is an interesting one. The Fortress of Solitude is a book that’s difficult to catagorise. With brief genre moments, and certainly many nods towards SF / comic book fandom, it describes the lives of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. One white, one black, both growing up in Brooklyn. Not a simple friendship.

The first and largest chunk of the novel is in third person, following mainly Dylan’s family as they move into the area of New York populated mainly by blacks, a decision spurred on by his Bohemian mother. It is here that Jonathan Lethem gets in full prose swing, clearly echoing Don DeLillo, in mood, pace, sentence structure. And for me that’s not a bad thing at all, considering Mr DeLillo a deity. I still think so little is ever discussed of style, it’s worth making a point here how talented a stylist Lethem is.

Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong… The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else.

One such sentence used to describe the poor quality education that Dylan must go through, and ultimately rise out of. Lethem’s voice is perfect to capture 70s America, with all the music, the language of the street, the graffiti, then the drugs. Lethem shows with warmness the racial tensions of the period, the yoking, the “yo, mama“, the social challenges of the area. When he bursts into those stream-of-consciousness style sentences, he’s poetic. Never quite riffing like DeLillo does, but still up there.

Dylan being one of the only white boys in the area suffers, inevitably, but not without making friends along the way. His relationship with Mingus is distantly affectionate, and Dylan does his best to blend in with black culture. But his geek side is too strong for him to remain bound by Brooklyn. Of course, a magic ring is thrown into the mix, granting invisibility, something Dylan appears to have craved, and the powers of flight. This ring came from someone who was on the way out of society, who seemed relieved to be rid of it.

The story breaks into first person, as we join Dylan after college, then looking back on college, before revisiting Brooklyn. You can’t help but by this point be totally immersed in his upbringing, so engaged, that this section stands up on the supporting frame of the third person narrative. They wouldn’t work without each other. Dylan is now suffering from an uncertain relationship with his past, almost unable to move on fully, Brooklyn never leaving him. Lethem writes with such an obvious love for the area. And all the time in the background is Dylan’s father, the painter of SF novel covers whilst working on a film, painstakingly, over the course of his life, never quite being finished. A relationship that is distant in the first section, ever more powerful towards the end of the novel. And of course there is the ring, revisited.

It is complex in places, hazy in others—but never meant to be clear. Only towards the end can we understand where he was going, and even then it is more a feeling, something within ourselves, our own childhood and future concerns, perhaps, that is brought to mind.

For lovers of style, sharp dialogue, and cultural investigation, this cannot be recommended enough.

8May

Falling Man, Don DeLillo

Taken from my old blog, because I was reminded about it recently.

A performance artist hangs in statuesque pose. Knee bent. Upside down. The pose of the famously pictured man on 9/11. And this artist is effectively frozen in time. Which is the metaphor at the heart of Don Delillo’s latest novel, Falling Man. That of a moment in time so frozen, so embedded in characters minds, that they are unable to move on. They, too, are frozen in a moment.

The subject of 9/11 is a risky business. Not because of the content, but the weight of the content. It is difficult to avoid the more tabloid angles. But DeLillo takes a sidestep of this. That is, after his much quoted opening:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.

The full weight of the events of 9/11 are there, of course, but secondary—as much as they can be—to the effects on the every day routines of our existence. Those routines that will never quite be the same. Keith is a survivor, a lawyer in his late thirties, having walked from one of the towers before the collapse. His relationship with his wife is reignited in some primitive level, a focus on the needs we don’t really understand. But Keith soon has an affair with a black woman who suffered in the destruction of that day, forms a kind of therapy with her in their intimacy, a way of coping with the events. They never connect in any other context than the discussion of that day.

So where are the Big Issues that DeLillo has usually tackled in his books? The grand conspiracies?

I think I understand DeLillo’s intentions from the passage during a writing class:

From this point on, you understand, it’s all about loss. We’re dealing inevitably here with diminishing returns. Their situation will grow increasingly delicate. These encounters need space around them. You don’t want them to feel there’s an urgency to write everything… The writing is sweet music up to a point. Then other things will take over.

He’s not after the obvious. Why do that when he’s done it before in his career, long before other people approached the subjects? He wants to focus on the effects. You get the idea he’s looking for that moment that we become human, in this almost inhumane (un-human?) situation we find ourselves in post-9/11.

And so the characters don’t really develop, they undevelop, peel back to some level before, searching for whatever it is to fix their lives since the destruction of the towers. Keith becomes heavily involved in poker games, for example, detached from the mechanisms of reality. His wife has flirtations with art and church. All the time his son looks towards the sky for more planes. This isn’t quite normal DeLillo territory. Gone are the almost claustrophobic paranoias that featured in his earlier works. There is a search for openness, perhaps honesty in things. But people seem unable to move on. They see the representation of the Twin Towers everywhere.

There is some questioning to be found, of the motives behind the suicide bombers, but this feels detached form the other sections. I wonder if it is there as a framework, or perhaps even to remind ourselves that the bomber had a human side too, once?

A more wonderful analysis can be found on the New York Times. But I applaud DeLillo for not doing the obvious thing, for not looking for headlines, and maybe this will surprise some.

Oh yeah, his prose is on sparkling form too. When DeLillo steps into third-person, he really riffs like a god.

12Apr

Telegraph Article On Fantasy

Not content with a mention in today’s Guardian newspaper, I’m quoted in this article on fantasy fiction in the Daily Telegraph no less, by genre author Mark Chadbourn. This appears to indicate even more that the establishment is wanting more genre. And that is fine by me. It’s a cracking article aimed at those who aren’t all that familiar with all things fantastical. This is great. There’s certainly a willingness for fantasy to find a wider audience in the last year or two, especially with the BBC series.

12Apr

Guardian Review

Here online for all to see is a rather positive review of The Reef with a nice little bit here:

Newton treads new ground in his attempt to bring literary concerns to the fantasy genre.

Well that’s bloody well going on the cover of something. And a hurrah for that. Yes, that’s certainly what I was trying to do, push things a little further, for my own entertainment, and lovely to see that the review simply got it.

5Apr

Mythago Wood—Or, They Don’t Write ‘Em Like This Anymore

Mythago Wood

Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock, is quite simply a beautiful book. It is a fantasy novel about the very nature of fantasy itself, about what it means to imagine.

Set after the Second World War, Stephen Huxley returns to his family home, Oak Lodge, on the outskirts of Ryhope Wood. It may appear like an ordinary enough ancient English forest, but Stephen’s father has spent the majority of his life researching some mysterious nature within. After his father’s death, he finds his brother has taken up the mantle of pursuing the secrets of the forest. And within Ryhope, are the mythagos, creatures from myth and legend that appear to the mind of ordinary humans, morphing into real flesh and blood creations. So the scene is set for one of the most beautiful books in the fantasy genre. Stephen’s encounters with the forest, the mythagos, his attempts to explore his deceased father’s journals and research, are wonderful meditations on the ability to imagine—a cornerstone of the fantasy genre. It is the most British fantasy I’ve read, too. Rob Holdstock writes with that tender, British touch—similar to Christopher Priest—elegant, slightly clipped. The essence of the forest, its sheer pungency, is all too real. He writes about ancient British myths in an ancient English woodland. It’s heady stuff.

I’ve actually met Robert Holdstock, and he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll meet in the genre. Even more of a reason to buy the book.

This book is a read for spring. To be accompanied with a slice of modern Folk music, as below, continuing my apparently unhealthy obsession with the music of Seth Lakeman.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX8z95Ndtz8]

31Mar

Review of The Reef

First one I’ve seen, over at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, and also the first review of anything of mine. And it’s a good one!

…a book that people will get a lot out of, especially if they’re fans of China Mieville’s work. Whether you’re after soaking up the sights of a fantastically drawn world, or being challenged by the darker recesses of the human mind (or even both!), then this is the book for you. Newton’s next work to be published will be his ‘Nights of Villjamur’ series and, on the strength of ‘The Reef’, I’m very much looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

Well, can’t say fairer than that. I’m curious as to how this book is received, since it is a bizarre book. Not easily classifiable. It has subtle links to Nights of Villjamur, which the sharp-eyed who read both books will notice. But the new book for Tor / Macmillan is a bigger, widescreen epic fantasy. I think I’ve grown as a writer (I wrote The Reef when I was 23) in dozens of aspects. I always think that if you don’t push yourself to improve at writing, you might as well stop.

30Mar

Catching Up

Been a quiet week on here. Eastercon was huge amounts of fun. Met a great many people, some for the first time. There was a mini launch of The Reef, and both China Miéville and Christopher Priest bought copies—two authors I’m huge fans of; and reading China’s work made me want to write in the first place. Needless to say, I was chuffed.

Then I spent a relaxing week in the Yorkshire Dales for my birthday, which included a visit to the finest pub called The Crown, at Lofthouse. Now, this place is awesome. The landlord looks like Santa gone off the rails. He was great. He drank so much ale, and kept topping his pint up in between serving people. Must have been three pints during an hour lunch. You can pay for food in cash, cheque, or by bartering with coal, eggs etc. No cards here. The cash register is a wooden box. The gents’ facilities can be found by walking out the front door, up the road, through something like a shed without a roof, and is the black painted wall before you. The newest piece of furnishing was a square clock from the 1970s, and really stood out against the rest of the decor. And the food was fantastic. They don’t make places like that anymore.